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Home-school parents and lessons unheeded

Special to The Times

When Paula Penn-Nabrit’s three African American sons (Charles and Damon, twin 11-year-olds, and Evan, 9) were attending an exclusive all-boys school in Columbus, Ohio, she found the veiled racism and elite tenor of the institution a stumbling block to their educational experience.

Instead of moving the boys to a different learning institution (they’d experienced similar drawbacks at previous schools), she and her husband decided to take the boys’ educational responsibility into their own hands by home-schooling.

“Morning by Morning” tells how the Nabrits defined their objectives, developed a curriculum to ensure the boys’ growth on many fronts, navigated the college application process and eventually procured what she considers Ivy League-level acceptance for all three young men.

For nine years, the parents worked together to encourage the boys’ holistic development, making certain to address their intellectual, spiritual and physical growth in equal measure.

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The boys, however, hated every aspect of the experience, and Penn-Nabrit’s extended family considered their home-schooling choice a foolish, sure-fire way to destroy the boys’ bright academic outlook.

There was only one way, Penn-Nabrit explains, to prove the skeptics wrong: “Our redemption hinged on [the boys’] acceptance by at least one exclusive, competitive, Ivy League college or university.” The twins ended up at Princeton and Evan at Amherst.

Because the Nabrits own a home-based business consulting firm, they were able to meet the boys’ educational needs while continuing their work. If travel to an out-of-town client was necessary, they made the trip into a class project, assigning the boys to research the city they’d be visiting and write papers on the subject.

The Nabrits supplemented their teaching efforts (both parents are Ivy League graduates) by hiring graduate students from local universities to tutor their sons. Most of these tutors were male African nationals or African Americans, thereby offering the boys strong role models.

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The parents signed the boys up for physical activities (fencing, golf, horseback riding), encouraged their sons to volunteer at a science museum and required their participation in church activities.

Every summer, the boys attended enrichment activities: space camp in Florida, an engineering program at Ohio State University, bicycle camp through the YMCA and an oceanography program in Maine.

They traveled as much as the family’s budget allowed (Paris, Bangkok, Singapore), studied world religions, read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and debated political and social issues at the breakfast table.

College visits began when the twins were 13, and much of the text is devoted to the application and admissions procedure.

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Although titled “Morning by Morning,” the book offers little insight into the daily details of home-schooling, remaining mostly in the theoretical zone. There are virtually no scenes to illustrate the hands-on experience, nor are the boys quoted much on their opinions (other than to say they hated it because they missed their friends and the classroom experience). Likewise, the path favored by the parents is not one that could be emulated by many readers because they seem to have spent as much on home-schooling as the prep school tuition they eliminated.

To its credit, the book is a thoughtful consideration of the educational system and how parents evaluate educational choices for children. Do parents generally value creativity and the ability to think for one’s self, or do they prefer high scores on standardized tests?

Are they interested in addressing all aspects of children’s development, including artistic ability and spiritual growth, or would they favor stellar GPAs?

The racism Penn-Nabrit recounts in both prep school and the outside world -- especially that targeting young African American males -- is also important, if detailed in an understandably bitter tone.

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At the heart of the text, though, is an inconsistency that significantly mars the book’s authority: The Nabrits chose home-schooling as an escape from the elitism and racism of the prep school environment, and yet their goal in doing so was the boys’ acceptance at the same kind of exclusive institution they’d just left.

The author makes numerous contradictory statements in this regard.

“True intelligence ... is what allows people to navigate the life process successfully.... Academic achievement merely allows people to perform well in school,” she writes, and yet she proffers highly specific proof of academic achievement (Ivy League-level acceptance) as the primary, nonnegotiable aspect of their home-schooling experience.

If the boys had failed to meet that goal, her narrative implies, the entire adventure would have been a failure.

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The final section of the book is filled with great honesty as Penn-Nabrit details problems the boys encountered adjusting to college life. One dropped out, another will graduate a year late.

Ultimately, readers appreciate the endless blessings this home-based approach has had in the lives of these three young men (even if, at times, the author fails to see them) and to recognize that holistic learning is a commendable and valid achievement -- with or without the Ivy League stamp of approval.


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